HL Deb 26 June 1969 vol 303 cc274-8

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Draft Agricultural Lime Scheme (Extension of Period) Order 1969, laid before the House on May 20 last be approved. The purpose of this Order is to continue for a further five years the authority under which payments may be made to farmers towards the cost of agricultural lime. The current authority, last renewed in 1964, expires at the end of July. The issue is quite simply whether payments of lime subsidy should be continued after that date.

The terms of the subsidy scheme itself and the level of subsidy are the subject of a separate Order known as the Agricultural Lime Scheme, the latest version of which was approved in 1966. I ought to say that the scheme is under review and some proposals have been put to the farmers' unions and lime trade associations for their consideration. Discussion of these proposals, and of any suggestions or counter proposals, will take place during the coming weeks and an amended Scheme will be laid before Parliament as soon as possible, provided, of course, Parliament first approves the draft Order now before this House.

On this present Order, however, the issue is simply whether a lime subsidy scheme should continue after July 31. The subsidy scheme has undoubtedly played an important part in the improvement in land fertility since the scheme began in 1937. Since then, use of lime has increased from half a million tons a year to an average of more than 6 million tons a year during the peak period from 1956 to 1965. The serious deficiencies in lime have been corrected, and in recent years use has naturally fallen to a level consistent with the estimated needs for maintenance of an adequate lime status. I am sure we shall agree that it is important that the proper use of lime should continue, and I hope and expect that noble Lords will approve this Order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Agricultural Lime Scheme (Extension of Period) Order 1969, laid before the House on May 20 last be approved.—(Lord Beswick.)

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for giving us the gist of this Order. We shall of course support it, and particularly the Order that is now before the House to extend the scheme in principle. However, I should like to take this opportunity to make a comment about the scheme that is at present under consideration for defining the payment of the subsidy which, as the noble Lord has told us, is now under discussion between the Government and the National Farmers' Union.

The noble Lord referred to the spectacular increase in application of lime which has occurred since this scheme started over 30 years ago, and this has been most gratifying to us all. Those in the farming world recognise that this lime scheme has probably given more value to the farmland of this country than any other single scheme. But in looking at the trend of consumption I would call the noble Lord's attention to the fall in the trend over the last few years. The noble Lord had some anodyne phrase about the fall from the level of 6 million tons per annum to a level which was sufficient for the husbandry needs of the land—or some such phrase. I should rather doubt it. I am beginning to think that the present level of application may well be falling below what is desirable, certainly for some of our farmland.

The level of application has fallen from about 6 million to 6½ million tons per annum seven or eight years ago to 3.9 million tons last year. This is quite a significant drop. It has fallen particularly sharply in the last two or three years, when it is perhaps significant that the rate of subsidy has been reduced in the last scheme from 65 per cent. to 50 per cent. Before passing definite comment on this fall, one must have expert technical advice as to what is the optimum level of application of lime throughout the country. I am not in a position to say firmly that 3.9 million tons is not enough, but I rather suspect that it is not. I should think that something higher was desirable, and I should not have thought that seven or eight years ago farmers generally were putting on very much more than was necessary.

There is this additional point. With another form of subsidy we are encouraging farmers now to put on heavier dressings of nitrogenous manure, which is itself an acidic fertiliser and therefore tends to further acidify the soil and to increase the lime need. I should think there is probably a case for looking fairly closely at these figures to see whether the present application is sufficient, whether the down trend over the past few years is now becoming dangerous, and whether measures should not be taken to get an upturn again, with rather heavier usage.

The point that I should like to put to the noble Lord is that he should ask his right honourable friend the Minister to look closely at the present level of application and particularly the level last year. I agree that last year was a year of exceptionally difficult weather, which probably had some influence on the level of application, but I rather suspect that the first few months of this year are also down—I imagine that the noble Lord has the figures. I should like him to look at this closely, and if the present level is not sufficient I would ask that the Minister should consider taking steps to encourage farmers to increase the present application to a level that would give the optimum fertility. With those comments, I have much pleasure in supporting the Order.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, for giving a general welcome to the continuation of this scheme. I listened with a good deal of interest and, if I may say so, sympathy to what he had to say about the trend of consumption. The figures, however, do not suggest that there is any need for alarm. Far from it. Taking a four-year rolling average, consumption has gone down from the peak of 6.5 million tons reached in 1963 to 4.7 million tons in the year 1968–69. The actual consumption for last year, taking last year alone, was 4 million tons. This, as the noble Lord said in the fair way that he always deals with these matters, was probably due in some part to the bad weather—bad liming weather particularly—that we had. Nevertheless, it is down, and although I notice that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have recently shown an increased use the figures for England certainly ought to be watched.

The noble Lord said that some attention ought to be given to the actual needs. Some assessment has been made. I understand that the results of the tests, hearing in mind the annual losses of lime due to leaching and the increased use of fertilisers, to which the noble Lord referred, suggest that there is a total lime requirement in the United Kingdom of 4.5 million tons per annum. That has to be compared with an actual figure of use last year of some 4 million tons, which to some extent, as we both agree, was probably influenced by the bad liming weather. Nevertheless, as I say, this trend is something that has to be watched. I am not sure that there may not come a time, if it continues, when we ought to embark upon some campaign or some further educational activity to ensure that the benefits of this subsidy are reaped to the utmost by the agricultural community. I will see that what the noble Lord has said is considered.

On Question, Motion agreed to.